By Irwin Chusid

Station Elder Scapegoat Ken Freedman invited me to author this issue's column for several reasons:

1) Feb. 20, 2000 marked my 25th anniversary at WFMU, which makes me the alter kocker (Ken graduated high school two years after I joined the staff). As such, if anyone knows where the skeletons are buried - hell, I buried them.

2) Ken owes me a lot of money. He thinks extending the privilege of authorship will relieve a portion of his debt. If this tactic prevails (I'm thinking about it), expect to read future State of the Station addresses from mortgage lenders, tech support geeks, and rodent exterminators.

3) Like Ken, I'm a middle-aged, white, NJ-bred, Jewish male of Eastern European extraction; on paper, I can pass as his doppelganger.

4) Ken was busy this month organizing a Million-Listener March or something.

This was Ken's pitch: "I was hoping you could write one page or more on your perspective as the senior staffer and the driving force behind our rebirth as a free-form station in the late 70's."

OK. So lets, uh..... perspectivize.

Some of those skeletons are buried on a closet shelf in the form of documents from my early days at WFMU, shortly after the Pleistocene era. I saved shit.

A 1974 "Holiday Joy" Christmas card featuring a photo of the WFMU roster, taken just before my arrival, depicts 11 staffers. Earliest salvaged phone list hand-dated "Winter '75-'76" lists 20 names. The February 2000 staff phone list has 107 names.

One '75-'76 staffer's work phone was "212-"; for the rest, no area codes necessary - the entire staff lived and worked in "201."

The year 2000 staff list encompasses ten area codes.

Earliest extant air schedule:
March 1975. I'm not on it. In the lower right-hand corner, in ballpoint scrawl, it says: "Irwin was suspended 3/75." I was distrusted by the staff because I sought to program free-form, rather than follow the general practice (if not policy) of prog-rock. I represented a challenge to the ancien regime. To play Harry Partch, Linda Perhacs, and Silver Apples, along with Julie London, Robert Wyatt, and scuffed Martin Denny LPs, segued around potty-training records, Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, the Firesign Theatre, and readings from the New Yorker was considered radical. That is, it was a throwback to late-'60s free-form, an adventurous approach to programming that had gone out of fashion, replaced in the commercial spectrum by consultant-driven niche broadcasting. In the mid-70s, college radio, at WFMU and elsewhere, was considered hip because DJs played Kansas and Ambrosia - before they went platinum.

The 1975 schedule reveals that WFMU signed on at 2:00 pm and signed off at 2:00 am. Yes, we were off the air 12 hours a day (ten on weekends).
Bud Styple, a jovial, legendary inebriate, hosted four shows a week, clocking 15 hours of airtime. (Styple holds iconic stature for Glen Jones.)

From 5-6 pm Monday through Thursday, WFMU aired taped programming from Jersey City State College, under a time-sharing agreement; from 6-8 pm Friday through Sunday, we carried tapes from William Paterson College. Don't ask what this filler contained; I have no recollection, but to say the subject was academic is probably closer to truth than metaphor. After all, professors from Upsala, WFMU's licenseholder, were occasionally accorded airtime to discuss "educational" matters. The college once or twice pulled rank and demanded the airing of tournament basketball - but not without yelps of defiance from station management. For the most part, however, the college was indifferent to the station's existence - a relationship that grew ever more distant throughout the station's history. There were rarely more than one or two students on the air during any given schedule, and the hourly mention of "Upsala College" in the station ID was mere formality.

The entire week's programming in 1975 was handled by 15 staffers. Some names: Joe Holliday, Zoltan Morvay, Doug Chuka, Pat Warne, the legendary Lou "Hour of the Duck" D'Antonio (who brilliantly embodied free-form radio, seemingly without influence on his colleagues).

Three shows a week were hosted by a dork - picture a 6'4" flounder with a Jew-fro - whose name I've been asked to withhold, who bullied his way into the Program Directorship, and who instigated my trumped-up suspension after just two shows. This arrested adolescent trawled for bottom-feeder groupies, Todd Rundgren interview discs (collectible trade bait!), and Nektar posters, while relishing the "cachet" that entitled him to limitless bong-hits from suck-up record industry weenies. I despised the schmuck for lacking a radio soul. After leaving WFMU, this bozoid snared a cubicle at a major label, where he presumably spent lazy afternoons bagging blowjobs from publicity interns in exchange for backstage passes to Cheap Trick concerts. I pray he's miserable, and bet he's a big fan of Barenaked Ladies.

From the staff meeting agenda, Feb. 19, 1975 (printed in blue mimeograph ink), under "New Rules":
"After 8:00 it's up to your discretion. DJ may have 1-2 beers and only the DJ. Be neat. Maintain self-dignity!" Staff meeting agenda, April 24, 1975: mostly references to malfunctioning equipment or replacement gear ("Ampro six channel stereo console"), and little mention of air content ("Everybody has to make a playlist"; "We don't have a rigid format, but let's not be slobs"). The final paragraph notes: "Irwin wants feedback on the information he gave out at the meeting. This information is Irwin's and does not necessarily reflect the views of the management." I had circulated what in WFMU's little sandbox amounted to a manifesto urging a renaissance of free-form. I got little or no feedback. They hoped I'd go away. I didn't. The suspension didn't stick, and I was reinstated for air duty around May 1975. (I was suspended again a year later for discouraging listeners from buying a new Fairport Convention anthology, recommending instead the original album releases. The music director argued that this was offensive to A&M Records - who were interested in selling the anthology, not back catalogue - and that my attitude could jeopardize the station's record service. Real Che Guevara stuff. I was relieved of my air duties for two weeks.)

Earliest reference to a fundraising goal:
$25,000 for 1976's "Survival Marathon." Premiums included a pallet of leftover Gladys Knight & The Pips 2nd Anniversary LPs dumped on the station the previous year by a clueless (or tax-writeoff intent) Buddah Records rep. My 1976 handwritten notes about subjects to discuss at the next staff meeting refer to a "Bicentennial Special" ("suggestion" is scribbled in the margins; it never happened). Next line says, "Dope-smoking - outside only. If FCC walks in & all that." (Ken has since imposed a written pledge of abstinence and celibacy on all staff members.) Overall, except for the sui generis Hour of the Duck, WFMU in '75-'76 was indistinguishable from hundreds of college radio outlets coast to coast. Which is to say, predictable and inconsequential. Major labels saw non-commercial stations as farm teams to break first- and second-album acts (they still do). Radio as an art form - as a medium with its own voice beyond its value in presenting pre-recorded music - was dormant.

That was a quarter-century ago. WFMU 2K, by comparison, is an eccentric array of misfits, malcontents, and societal undesirables who have channeled otherwise criminal tendencies into broadcast brilliance. These people deeply love radio, and engage in it with passion and creative fervor. No one enlists at WFMU for posters and free CDs, and I don't doubt a single staffer's commitment to great programming and to serving the greater WFMU community (read: our listenership). These radio elves work hard, and salaries have not kept pace with inflation. In fact, today's free-formers earn Gerald Ford-era rates: a sub-slave wage of $0.00 per hour.

As in '75, the current staff has to deal with malfunctioning equipment and wiggy circuitry. Records still get misfiled and others magically disappear. Somewhere along the line, a fascistic program director imposed a prohibition against beer in the studio. Bud Styple drifted away.

The Good Old Days were only good insofar as they provided the foundation for today's phenomenal explosion of intelligent, adventurous and iconoclastic programming over WFMU's airwaves. The fact that I can't stand at least 40% of it - and that few can listen to all of it - testifies to the station's variety and unpredictability.

But I love this staff, even those whose shows I find icky. Terrific bunch of guys and gals, without exception. Honored to work here, and delighted they haven't slipped me a gold watch. I wouldn't have stuck around for 25 years just to make trouble. Nice to have time to contribute to a worthwhile volunteer cause AND have a life.

Looking forward to 25 more years of sonic trash-picking and genre-surfing tokenism. For a non-joiner like me, a guy with little civic spirit, WFMU is a fun place to belong.

It's like your favorite neighborhood tavern with a great jukebox. Only without beer, cocktails, or bar snacks. But with 107 cool bartenders.

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